14 Phrases with Play and Play Idioms ›› play it by ear, play with fire, play it cool, play ball


idioms with play

The word play is a commonly used word. As a noun, it means a production or a live show.

As a verb, it usually means to do something related to sports and games. It can also be used to describe playing instruments. However, there are also several other situations in which English speakers use the word play. Here are some collocations with it!

In case you do not know, collocations are phrases of words that are more commonly used than you might expect. They often have a specific meaning when the words are used together.

Expressions, phrases and idioms with Play

1. To play a role (in)

One of the most common uses of play is the phrase to play a role. This means that a person, thing, company, event, etc. had a part in something.

In this phrase, the word role can be preceded by words that show how important this role was to whatever is being described. Common adjectives include important, major, key, crucial, significant, large, and vital.

All of these adjectives mean that the role played was very important – perhaps meaning that the result could not have been possible without the thing.


  • Deciding to travel instead of going straight to college after high school played a major role in my life.
  • You might not think it if you don’t know how it works, but the secretary of the office actually plays a vital role in making almost all the decisions at this company.
  • Ronald played a key role in helping the team win today.

2. To play a part (in)

Playing a part is similar to playing a role. They both can be used to describe how something works.

The difference is that playing a role is usually used to describe someone or something that has a large role. Playing a part can also be more important, but if someone or something wasn’t important, they usually play a part, not a role.

That means that adjectives that go before part can include small, insignificant, and fleeting, as well as those such as key and crucial.


  • It’s good to make any kind of progress, but cutting coupons only plays a small part in helping you stay under budget.
  • Bobby only played a fleeting part in working on the project, but he’s trying to take all the credit.
  • Sandra keeps saying she only played an insignificant part in the company’s success, but she is seriously downplaying how important she was.

3. Play your cards right

Playing your cards right is an idiom that comes from the various card games that are out there. It means that regardless what you have, you can win or be successful if you use your resources wisely.

It can also mean behaving appropriately. This expression can be used in any situation.


  • If you play your cards right, we might be able to turn this in to a $10 million investment.
  • If you play your cards right, I will buy you a chocolate bar when we leave the store.
  • I didn’t think it was possible but I was able to get a well-paying job and ace my classes when I played my cards right!

4. Play the system

This means to take advantage of the rules of a specific system for your own benefit. Even though you are not technically breaking the law or the rules, you are using them in a way that isn’t fair for most other people.

Playing the system has a negative feeling attached to it, so someone who plays the system takes full advantage of the weaknesses of that set of rules.


  • Politicians often play the system by changing the laws in their favor.
  • It sounds dirty but sometimes you have to play the system to get what you want.
  • Don’t be afraid to play the system if you want to be successful.

5. Play for time

Playing for time means that you deliberately try to delay something. It doesn’t matter what you do to try to delay it, but usually, if you play for time you are trying to delay a difficult decision of some sort.


  • His excuses were terrible for continuing to delay the meeting so I could tell he was just playing for time.
  • Tom was too pushy so he left me no choice but to play for time.
  • When it is almost election season, some politicians in the minority party like to play for time to see if they can delay the laws that the current majority party want to pass.

6. Play it safe

If you would rather be conservative than take risks, you can play it safe. Regardless of the benefits that you might get from trying different things, play it safe to avoid losses.


  • He played it safe by not gambling when he went to Las Vegas.
  • Sometimes playing it safe pays off; sometimes it doesn’t.
  • The thief escaped by playing it safe and waiting for the police to lose his trail, even though he might have been able to rob more shops in the meantime.

7. Play with fire

The opposite of playing it safe is playing with fire. When you play with fire, you take a very big risk, often risks that are unnecessary.

While what you can gain from taking risks is considerable, it is also extremely risky. Think of a performer who performs with fire. They are appealing because what they do includes a lot of danger.


  • Are you sure? It sounds like you might be playing with fire on that one.
  • Playing with fire can really pay off if it works out.
  • Not everyone likes to play with fire, but those who do often have really interesting stories to tell even if they fail!

8. Play it cool

When they go on a date, a lot of people try to play it cool! Instead of showing any signs of nervousness, they will pretend they are perfectly calm and even unaffected.

Playing it cool usually means that someone is setting up a façade, or showing a part of themselves that is not genuine. Along with playing it cool at dates, you can play it cool during interviews, business transactions, at a doctor’s appointment, etc.


  • He tried to play it cool as much as he could but with the sweat running down his face, it’s obvious that he is very nervous.
  • A lot of dating coaches will tell you to play it cool, but sometimes showing that you are nervous and excited can be very sweet!
  • Don’t force yourself to play it cool – only do it if you really feel it!

9. Play it by ear

When you don’t know how to prepare for something, you should play it by ear. This means that you take the situation into consideration and adjust as it develops – perfect for times that you can’t or don’t know what to do!

This expression can be used for any situation; it doesn’t only apply to situations that you can hear.


  • The spies were used to playing it by ear.
  • I really don’t like to play it by ear but I really have no time to prepare for the meeting tomorrow.
  • Sometimes playing it by ear can get you really incredible results.

10. Play up

To play something up means to make the situation seem bigger, more important, more dramatic, or more extreme than it really is.

While it doesn’t mean deliberately lying about it, the term does mean exaggerating something – highlighting the details of it and making them seem more noteworthy.


  • If you want this plan to work, you really have to play up the skill of your teacher!
  • Did he try just try to play up his success? He forgot that I have been with him every step of the way!
  • Playing up your weaknesses is a surefire way to get your application rejected.

11. Play down

The opposite of playing up is to play down. Instead of making something bigger, playing down means to try to keep something on the down low, to keep it small, and to make it seem like a smaller deal than it really is. If someone is very humble, they are probably trying to play down their accomplishments.


  • Wow, he really played down your qualifications! Your experience and education make you the perfect candidate for this job.
  • Don’t play down your skills if you are trying to pitch your services to a potential client.
  • I don’t understand why Theresa would want to play down her scholarship. It’s a really big deal!

12. Play ball

Playing ball means to go with the flow, give in, or do what the other person wants you to do. Even if you would rather do something your own way, you might choose to give in because someone else, such as your boss or parents, insist on something else.

Note that play ball also has the literal meaning of playing a sport, so do not get confused if you see it used in that context!


  • It looks like the boss wants us to do things her way. Alright then, let’s play ball!
  • Play ball! The materials that we need to start working have finally arrived.
  • What else do you want me to do? I already said I would play ball!

13. Play the innocent

When you want to fool someone else, you can play the innocent. This means that you pretend that you do not understand what is happening, and that it has nothing to do with you.

In this case, you are most likely guilty for something, but don’t want to be blamed for it. Instead, you pretend to be innocent like the spies do in the movies.


  • Do you think you can get away with this by playing the innocent? Think again!
  • When I was caught, I didn’t know what I should do so I tried to play the innocent.
  • I don’t think this bystander is playing the innocent but it’s never easy to tell if someone is telling the truth or not

14. Play straight into someone’s hands

Playing straight into someone’s hands means to help them without meaning to or do exactly what they want you to do, especially if you don’t want to.

This is a term used a lot when talking about tricks and manipulation; having played straight into someone’s hands is usually something that is accompanied by a feeling of betrayal or being tricked.

It often is a negative feeling, even if it does not actually harm you.


  • The policemen set up a trap to catch the thief, who played straight into their hands by falling for the trap right away.
  • Patrick knew that you would react with anger before trying to think things through, so he was banking on that reaction from you. By getting angry and yelling at the clients, you played straight into his hands.
  • If I play my cards right, I think I can get him to show up late to the test on purpose and play straight into my hands.


When it comes to sports, there are a number of words that you can use to describe them. While we generally say playing sports, some sports, such as running, ballet, or swimming, use different words. We go running, do ballet, and go swimming.

For play, we usually talk about sports that need a ball or something similar (shuttlecock for badminton, disc for Frisbee, puck for hockey, etc.) to play. Below are some sports that we play rather than go or do.

  • Play badminton
  • Play ping pong
  • Play football
  • Play soccer
  • Play baseball
  • Play tennis
  • Play hockey
  • Play chess
  • Play squash
  • Play volleyball
  • Play basketball
  • Play cricket
  • Play board and card games

More Phrases with Play:

play out foul play
play off play up role play
play false plug and play power play
play down play date play by ear
in play triple play double play
play on come into play play around
fair play play possum play along
basketball play squeeze play morality play
play it by ear play at mystery play
play on words shadow play pay to play
satyr play play doh play therapy
play back passion play match play
play with play a part stroke play
play ball childs play play by play
pure play play hooky state of play
word play play boy play for time
baseball play miracle play medal play
play safe play dead by play
free play draw play all work and no play
bring into play running play play into the hands of
play it cool play list nativity play
play group play off against safety squeeze play
trap play appeal play play catch up
play hardball play house end play
football play play truant play up to
team play brought into play passing play
play for play the field stage play
play it safe three-point play at play
make a play for play the card radio play
turnabout is fair play long play play acting
play games a play on words play fast and loose
play hard to get play the fool play the game
play tricks play with fire play a trick on
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